How SWIFT reduced virtual world training to 30 minutes

An interesting quesion arose from my ALT-C talk last week. It was basically “How can you use Second Life for teaching when it takes two hours to learn how to use it?”

Which isn’t really a question, of course. It’s a statement. Along the lines of “It takes my students two hours to learn to use Second Life.”

So, here’s a question in reply: Do you expect your students to be able to use MS Word? Yes? Including MailMerge? Macro programming? I suspect not. They probably just need basic formatting. Maybe headings. An index for the really advanced. And it’s the same with learning to use Second Life. Thirty minutes training is all that’s needed for most learners in higher education.

SWIFT learner's avatar showing virtual lab and HUD and animation. (Image courtesy Paul Rudman.)

The key is to consider training as part of the overall design. Here’s what we did for SWIFT.

  1. Define the Learning Objectives. For our second lab it was to practice evaluating experimental results and to learn the connection between theory and practice.
  2. Design activities that will best support those Learning Objectives. In our second lab, the activity was to work through a sequence of experimental steps and results, answering quesions about procedure, interpreting results and seeing animations of molecular processes at critical moments.
  3. Design the environment necessary for those activities. We created individual lab benches with replica equipment, and a Head-Up Display that acted as the automated guide.
  4. Define the SL competencies necessary to accomplish those activities. So,
    • a. Walk – well enough to position the avatar in one place
    • b. Close the sidebar
    • c. Touch (click on) objects
    • d. Chat
    • e. Zoom the camera in on one spot
    • f. Put on and remove a lab coat
    • g. Attach the HUD

      Now, most of these only need to be done once, and some will already be understood (like clicking on things) so there’s no need for lots of practice. All that learners really need to be good at is zooming the camera. So the 30 minutes is something like 10 minutes for the easy things, 10 minutes for the lab coat and 10 minutes for the camera.

  5. Create or adapt a training area suitable for learning and practicing those skills (and only those skills, so the training area may need adjusting for different groups). There are many training areas in SL, some better than others. Ours is here. Basically, the avatar needs to be constrained until they can walk properly, instructions must be very clear to all, and tasks must be in a logical progression. We have adjusted our training area over the last 12 months using observation and in-world interviews and questionnaires.

And that’s it! We don’t teach them how to run, fly, IM, search, teleport, build, offer friendship, use weapons, drive vehicles … there’s quite a list, and if they choose to continue using SL in their own time and outside of the University island they will probably want to use many of these. And they may need MailMerge in MS Word for running their own business.

Visitors in the SWIFT training area. (Image courtesy Paul Rudman.)

So, ask learners new to Second Life to sign up for an Second Life account on the web site in advance. Then in the class, when they first use Second Life , ask them to enter the location of your training area at the Second Life login screen (so they don’t wander round some public place) and the half-hour training will pretty much run itself. (Yes, really, you just need someone hovering to help the occasional student who uses existing knowledge or expectation in place of the instructions.) We would expect similar success with OpenSim implementations, but can’t speak from experience with these.

How well the actual lesson goes depends on many things, from what’s to be learned and how that’s represented in the virtual world, to how well the environment is built and how motivated the students (and teacher) are. Some things can be learned well in virtual spaces, others not. Some virtual world use is embarked upon with enthusiasm, some not. What we can say with some certainty though, is that Second Life training need not be a problem.

(Article reprinted with permission from Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog.)

Paul Rudman

Paul Rudman is a research associate working on SWIFT, which investigates the use of artificial environments, such as Second Life, to support laboratory-based learning of genetics at undergraduate level. Paul has previously worked on the Equator project at the University of Glasgow investigating interactions between a physical city and its digital representation, as consultant on the evaluation of MyArtSpace, a mobile learning service to support school museum visits, and most recently at Oxford Brookes University on the evaluation of the EU-funded AtGentive project, which investigated the role of artificial characters in guiding children's attention in an online learning environment.

  • eileen

    Useful info, Paul. I have been running classes in Second LIfe for 4 years, mostly discussion boards and easy stuff. They don't have to know how to do EVERYTHING and that is what make many faculty intimidating about using virtual. Glad to hear you are finding the same thing.

  • Lawrence Pierce

    I learned Second Life in a graduate course, was a TA a year later for students taking the same course, and returned twice on even later occasions to give one hour beginning lessons in Second Life. They did exactly as you recount – students created accounts before the class and were ready to log in with an avatar immediately at the beginning of the hour. By the end of the hour, most were teleporting to various locations, sending IMs and thoroughly enjoying the experience. It often struck me that learning to use a viewer was very similar to learning to use a word processor or any other productivity application. Basic tasks could be learned quickly. I find the analogies presented in the article quite apt.

    I would add that learning to use a viewer goes much smoother if the instruction is live where questions and issues can be addressed and resolved quickly and personally, as they occur. Too often, in our online-centric world, people are left to their own devices and frustration takes over. In my experience, it just takes a well-structured first hour of interactive guidance to set someone off in the right direction.

  • This pragmatic and efficcient approach should be imitated.
    I will had that I concur with Mr Pierce on the fact that a live help in the first moments is a big plus.

  • nice post! i also like to then have “advanced” learning challenges – mainly moving your avatar, camming, and mouselook – things like walking in tight places and having specific things to look at